Biocomplexity — A frontier of modern science
The science disciplines that try to understand how biological and earth systems work arose in previous centuries when places that humans had not affected still remained. But in the past century, scientists have begun to realize that to really understand the world we inhabit — how it works, and how it’s changing — we have to accept Homo sapiens as an essential player, and not an intruder. This kind of thinking, which links biology, ecology, physics, chemistry, with human society and behavior, is leading to some very exciting, and sometimes surprising, science.
One term for this emerging science is biocomplexity. Biocomplexity is an umbrella science that integrates the core concepts of ecology, biogeography, ecosystem services, and landscape ecology to understand “coupled human-natural systems” and to identify more effective solutions to the challenges we face in the biosphere.
This course is designed to help students acquire a “biocomplex” way of thinking, by looking at several real situations, some familiar, and some unfamiliar, in which humans are involved as the world changes. Our mission is to foster the understanding of the complex fabric of relationships between humans and the environment, vital and important knowledge for all citizens in an era of global human impact on the environment. We can no longer study “natural” systems without considering human interactions. High school science materials should reflect this critically important fact, and also support students to engage in authentic investigations.
The curriculum uses a case study approach to engage students with biocomplexity in urban, agricultural, tropical and polar systems, in which students address environmental land and resource use challenges increasingly confronted by society. Students engage in inquiry-based investigations, gather data from primary sources, and construct evidence-based arguments. The curriculum is enlivened by multimedia resources, including video, animations, podcasts and slideshows. The four units each take 7-9 weeks to complete.
Unit One: Urban Biocomplexity : Students develop an understanding of systems thinking at the local scale of their familiarschoolyard ecosystem. They make a land use decision regarding the addition of anathletic field to the school grounds and investigate how land use impacts hydrology,nitrogen flux, biotic factors, social factors, and ecosystem services.
Unit Two: Sprawl and Biocomplexity: Students explore the impact of habitat fragmentation as they consider the proposedconversion of farmland to a suburban housing development. They map landscapeelements and investigate biodiversity, social factors, fluxes of carbon, the economics androle of commodity subsidies, and the impact of “green” design. They debate land usealternatives that include sustainable practices, and build a coherent scientific case to support their land use choice.
Unit Three: Amazonia and Biocomplexity: Students explore connections between the agricultural and grazing practicescurrently responsible for large-scale deforestation in Amazonia and the connections ofdeforestation to local, regional, and global climate. They investigate the role of rainforestin regulating atmospheric gases and stabilizing rainfall. They analyze patterns ofAmazonian deforestation and habitat fragmentation, analyze the economic ecology ofsoybean production, cattle ranching and forestry land uses, and conduct a stakeholderanalysis. Finally, student teams prepare a plan for land in a region in Amazonia, jugglingtypes of land use to optimize other critical factors such as conservation, carbonsequestration, economic benefits and viable agriculture.
Unit Four: Arctic Biocomplexity: Many arctic species are showing signs of rapid impacts from habitat disruption due to climate change. Students explore these impacts, investigate the flux of heat energy, and learn about population dynamics, conservation biology, adaptation and natural selection to be able to forecast what is likely to happen to selected Arctic species as the climate changes. They construct a case to support recommended conservation strategies.